The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments today in the case of Gill v. Whitford. This is a case that has the potential to reshape the political landscape across national and state electoral maps. However, before diving into the issues raised by Gill v. Whitford it is important to understand the history of gerrymandering both in principle and how it functions as a political tool.
Gerrymandering has been used since the beginning of the 19th century as a tool for legislators to divide up citizens into voting blocs. Originally, and some argue is still prevalent today, it was thought to provide a closer relationship between constituents and their representative. After all if the people of a community share certain values and band together to elect a representative that shares those values, in principle, they would have direct access to their democratic, political voice. The problem is how gerrymandering has been used as a tool over time. What once might have been a representative process has evolved into a more convoluted means to a political end.
In a majority of states the people that are elected to political office from each district were then put in control of drawing the lines when redistricting occurred. As communities grew, and demographics changed, over time those in power saw fit to redraw the lines — often in ways that made it easier for those in power to stay in power.
Those voters who might want to change the laws, or disagreed with the stances of their representatives, more and more often found themselves split into districts where they weren’t properly represented in the very political system they sought to change. As reported in the Washington Post, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argues “If you can stack a legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote? Whether it’s a Democratic district or a Republican district . . . the result is preordained.”
Given this context, a series of constitutional challenges were raised to redistricting efforts by state’s with the most recent case to reach the bench taking the form of Gill v. Whitford. According to Brookings constitutional expert Fred Dews, “In Gill, Wisconsin appealed a federal court’s 2016 decision invalidating the state’s post-2010 redistricting map… the panel deemed Wisconsin’s Republican-led legislature’s 2011 map as unconstitutional on First and Fourteenth Amendment bases.” While the outcome of the case is unclear, the decision made by the court has the potential to provide real movement on political gerrymandering for the first time in decades.
Barnes, Robert. “Supreme Court takes up Wisconsin as test in partisan gerrymandering claims.” The Washington Post. October 03, 2017.
Dews, Fred. “A primer on gerrymandering and political polarization.” Brookings. July 06, 2017. Accessed October 03, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2017/07/06/a-primer-on-gerrymandering-and-political-polarization/.
Howe, Amy. “Today’s orders: Court to tackle partisan gerrymandering.” SCOTUSblog. June 19, 2017. http://www.scotusblog.com/2017/06/todays-orders-court-tackle-partisan-gerrymandering/.
Spector, Matthew. “Supreme Court set to scrutinize partisan gerrymandering-and why it matters.” Brookings. July 19, 2017. Accessed October 03, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2017/07/19/supreme-court-to-scrutinize-partisan-gerrymandering/.
“Who’s Gerry and Why Is He So Bad at Drawing Maps?” WNYC. http://www.wnyc.org/story/whos-gerry-and-why-he-so-bad-drawing-maps.